Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode

Futility Closet

Nov 25, 2019

In the 1940s, Frances Glessner Lee brought new rigor to crime scene analysis with a curiously quaint tool: She designed 20 miniature scenes of puzzling deaths and challenged her students to investigate them analytically. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death and their importance to modern investigations.

We'll also appreciate an overlooked sled dog and puzzle over a shrunken state.


In a lecture at Cornell, Vladimir Nabokov considered Gregor Samsa's new species.

Siren Elise Wilhelmsen taught a clock to knit a scarf.

Flickr and the Smithsonian American Art Museum have image galleries of Frances Glessner Lee's nutshell studies. Sources for our story:

Corinne May Botz, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, 2004.

Frances Glessner Lee, "Legal Medicine at Harvard University," Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 42:5 (January-February 1952), 674-678.

M. Uebel, "Corpus Delicti: Frances Glessner Lee and the Art of Suspicion," Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences 27:2 (2018), 124-126.

Jacquelyn A.D. Jones, "The Value and Potential of Forensic Models," Forensics Journal 8 (2017), 58-65.

Katherine Ramsland, "The Truth in a Nutshell," Forensic Examiner 17:2 (2008), 1620.

"Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death," Forensic Magazine, Sept. 8, 2017.

Jimmy Stamp, "How a Chicago Heiress Trained Homicide Detectives With an Unusual Tool: Dollhouses,", March 6, 2014.

Sarah Zhang, "How a Gilded-Age Heiress Became the 'Mother of Forensic Science,'" Atlantic, Oct. 14, 2017.

Nicole Cooley, "Death and Feminism in a Nutshell," Paris Review, Feb. 5, 2018.

Nigel Richardson, "Murder She Built," Telegraph Magazine, Jan. 31, 2015, 36.

Catherine Nixey, "Who Shot Barbie?", Times, Nov. 10, 2014, 9.

Jessica Snyder Sachs, "Welcome to the Dollhouses of Death," Popular Science 262:5 (May 2003), 38.

William L. Hamilton, "Heiress Plotted 19 Grisly Crimes. Investigation Underway," New York Times, Jan. 10, 2018.

Ariella Budick, "Bring Up the Bodies: Dioramas," Financial Times, Dec. 30, 2017, 14.

"The Art of Murder: Miniature Dioramas of Unexplained Deaths – In Pictures," Guardian, Oct. 27, 2017.

Maura Judkis, "Homicide Sweet Homicide," Washington Post, Oct. 27, 2017, T19.

"These Miniature Murder Scenes Have Shown Detectives How to Study Homicides for 70 Years," Washington Post, Sept. 17, 2017, A.24.

Chris Hewitt, "Crime-Scene Replicas Still Have Tale to Tell in Minneapolis Filmmaker's Documentary," Saint Paul Pioneer Press, March 18, 2013.

Michael Sragow, "Murder in a Nutshell," Baltimore Sun, June 3, 2012, E.1.

"Visible Proofs: Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death," New York Times, May 11, 2009.

Amanda Schaffer, "Solving Puzzles With Body Parts as the Pieces," New York Times, Feb. 28, 2006.

Robert Gottlieb, "True Story of Elderly Heiress Who Designed Dioramas of Death," New York Observer, Jan. 24, 2005, 21.

Robin Summerfield, "Crime in a Nutshell," Calgary Herald, Jan. 1, 2005, G9.

Jennifer Schuessler, "Murder in the Dollhouse," Boston Globe, Oct. 24, 2004, E.2.

John Woestendiek, "Murder in Miniature," Baltimore Sun, Oct. 14, 2004, 1E.

Eve Kahn, "Murder Downsized," New York Times, Oct. 7, 2004, F.1.

"Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death," Smithsonian American Art Museum (accessed Nov. 10, 2019).

"Dollhouse Crime Scenes," CBS Sunday Morning, Jan. 14, 2018.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, "The Tiny, Murderous World of Frances Glessner Lee," All Things Considered, National Public Radio, Nov. 18, 2017.

Alison Thoet, "Photos: These Gruesome Dollhouse Death Scenes Reinvented Murder Investigations," PBS NewsHour, Nov. 20, 2017.

Ann Marie Menting, "Death in a Nutshell," Harvard Medical School, Sept. 18, 2017.

Corinne May Botz, "The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death" (accessed Nov. 10, 2019).

Gabrielle Alberts, "This Is Where I Leave You: Unsettling Realities of a Miniature," dissertation, University of Cape Town, 2013.

Ferdinand Demara as "Hospital Doctor" in The Hypnotic Eye (1960). Sources for our listener mail segment:

Wikipedia, "Ferdinand Waldo Demara: Films/TV" (accessed Nov. 13, 2019).

IMDb, "The Hypnotic Eye" (accessed Nov. 13, 2019).

IMDb, "Fred Demara: Biography" (accessed Nov. 16, 2019).

Wikipedia, "M*A*S*H (TV series)" (accessed Nov. 13, 2019).

"Captain Adam Casey," The Monster M*A*S*H Wiki (accessed Nov. 13, 2019).

"Dear Dad ... Again (TV series episode)," The Monster M*A*S*H Wiki (accessed Nov. 13, 2019).

Brendan Michael, "Check Out Willem Dafoe Mushing in First Look Image of Disney+’s 'Togo,'" Collider, Oct. 24, 2019.

IMDb, "Togo (2019)" (accessed Nov. 16, 2019).

Wikipedia, "Togo (film)" (accessed Nov. 14, 2019).

"'The Great Alaskan Race' Review: A Historic Sled Rescue Turned to Mush," New York Times, Oct. 24, 2019.

IMDb, "The Great Alaskan Race (2019)" (accessed Nov. 16, 2019).

Dennis Harvey, "Film Review: 'The Great Alaskan Race,'" Variety, Oct. 24, 2019.

It Happens Every Thursday, 1953.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Dianna Gabbard. Here are two corroborating links (warning -- these spoil the puzzle).

We're very sorry to have to say that we recently had to say goodbye to Sasha. We feel very grateful that we got to share our lives with her for over 18 years, but several days ago we learned that she had advanced bone cancer. Until quite recently she had been very active, alert, and engaged in life, so the news was rather a shock to us. The cancer wasn't treatable, and after a few days we realized that the time had come for us to have to say goodbye. She will be very missed, and no beloved pet is ever fully replaceable, but we do hope at some point in the future to find another cat that needs a good home, when we are ready.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet -- you can choose the amount you want to pledge, and we've set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!